Caught by the River

The Summer Isles

Sue Brooks | 24th October 2019

The Summer Isles: A Voyage of the Imagination – Sue Brooks reviews Philip Marsden’s latest, our Book of the Month for October, published earlier this month by Granta.

The name of these islands touches the imagination. I remember my first encounter, when a postcard arrived some years ago from a friend who had visited them. I still have it on the kitchen wall – the view, much faded now, of the dark shapes floating between blue/grey sea and sky, and the name in bold on a white border.

The Summer Isles. Straight from a fairy tale or a never-ending children’s story book; the Tír na nÓg of happiness and eternal youth. I wanted to go there. I never have, not yet anyway, but this marvellous book rekindles the flame.

Philip Marsden has a personal connection with the west coasts of Scotland and Ireland from visits to his aunt Bridget’s home in the Upper Oykel region of Sutherland, and as a student at An Cheathru Ruathe Irish Language school in Galway. His last book Rising Ground was land based, exploring the topography around his own home in Cornwall. He was ready for a sea voyage, if an idea presented itself, and a suitable boat could be found.

By early spring, the ideas had multiplied, the 31ft oak and mahogany sloop Tsambika was kitted up and ready to leave for the Irish coast. He wasn’t deterred by having little experience of the boat, and no experience at all of single-handed sailing. Twenty years, he tells us, of travelling in difficult to reach places, had taught him that ‘the journey’s trickiness is what makes it most rewarding’.

There is plenty of trickiness. The weather is against him from the start. Storms pile in from the Atlantic or blow hard from the east. He is holed up in Dingle, the first port of call, waiting for a leak to be fixed. Anxiety rises. After a rough passage into the harbour at Fenit, losing concentration and coming into the pontoon too fast, he noticed for the first time ‘how much my hand was shaking’. He acknowledges that he is more inclined to wondering, reading, thinking about words and ideas, than the practical business of seamanship. Tsambika demands that he learns fast. It helps that he loves the language of seafaring, especially sailing – the halyards, sheets, cleats, the outhaul; the magic of  “We raised the Irish coast at dawn.” One of the great charms of this book is getting to know the skipper. A man who makes mistakes, who takes the short cut even when he knows it is foolhardy. Who trusts his gut feelings and is easily moved to tears, and sometimes reaches ‘a freedom so intense that I felt I really could control the eight tons of wood and iron beneath me.’

Philip Marsden is also a man with infinite curiosity about other people – those met by chance or introductions, or through the stories their lives leave behind in dusty archives. Cormac Gillespie is one of the most delightful. He sparkles in retirement about his enthusiasm for his dictionary of maritime terms in Ulster Irish. The conversation they share about the many associations of the word bolg (“bilge” in English translation, “Fir Bolg” the ancient race who settled in Ireland) is all the more poignant because the dictionary exists in typescript only, being of no interest to any publisher. Another is Francoise Henry, the archaeologist who lived and worked on Inishkea in the 1940s and discovered the site where purple dye was made from thousands of dog-whelk shells, (purpura lapillus) the alchemical process which created the dye for the robes worn in ancient Greece by storytellers and poets. The colour of the imagination.

The myths and magic of islands dominate the voyage. They are the inspiration and guiding light, just as they were when Philip first came across Frank Fraser Darling’s Island Farm in his aunt’s house as a young man. The account of the years Fraser Darling, his wife Bobbie and their young son spent on Tanera Mor – the largest of the Summer Isles – in the 1930s, left an imprint which became a dream and then a vow, as yet unfulfilled. He quotes the opening sentence of Island Farm – ‘I wonder as I grow older how great the influence of nostalgia is, on the course of our lives. How far does it make a man creative or does it become a token of his defeat?’

It is a recurring motif – the longing for something other, something beyond and above, out of reach except in the imagination and the enduring appeal of stories, like St Brendan’s which Philip tells with such simple relish, it brought a lump to my throat. Nowhere is the longing more palpable than in the centres of the Irish Literary revival – the Blaskets and the Aran islands. Philip gives us the history and the mythology, and in some cases, the reality, including the story of Michael O’Guiheen, known as An File, the last of the Blasket poets. He went to America, but didn’t like it there and returned home, just as the last of the families were leaving the island. Philip finds his passport in the Blasket Centre, every page used as scarce writing paper for his poems. He was forced to spend the rest of his life on the Kerry mainland opposite his beloved islands. ‘The document which could have opened the world to An File, became a notebook to record what remained of the past.’ 

Famous names float in and out of the pages. Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Theodore Roethke on Inishbofin, Derek Hill on Tory island, David Thomson’s work on the selkie myths, T.H.White, W.B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney. All brought to life through Philip’s research (the Chapter notes are excellent reading) and his story-telling gift. They arise seamlessly from the narrative, from the magical trickiness of the light as much as from his own thoughts and feelings. When the taxi driver tells the varied group of tourists, including Philip who has come ashore at Inis Mor, ‘to pit my own credulity against the stones of Aran,’ that he himself has seen the island of Hy-Brasil a couple of times out fishing, Philip says not a word. On Inis Mor, anything is possible.

Strong winds from the west and northwest continue for weeks with Philip ‘running along the coast like a fugitive’. The days are shortening as he crosses the Irish Sea. Scottish islands lie ahead, known and unknown, real and imaginary (although ‘fewer imaginary ones off the western coast of Scotland than that of Ireland’). He reaches Canna, and a deeply nostalgic reaquaintance with the life of an old friend – Margaret Fay Shaw – followed by an overnight stay with the formidable John Purser, composer, poet and scholar of the Irish language, in his croft on the Isle of Skye. He listens to a CD of John’s music in the cockpit of Tsambika. It is entitled Dreaming of islands. He moors up in the harbour at Portree. Most of the moorings are empty and the only other skipper is heading south the next day. Philip is determined to reach his goal, only fifty miles to the north.

With the end so close, I have resisted the temptation to flip to the last page. And does it matter anyway? In the epic tradition, the journey is of the essence, not the destination. The Summer Isles will never lose their mysterious appeal to the imagination, as alive in the twenty first century as in the days of the Irish immrama. The message of the St Brendan story, in Philip’s words is ‘Go forth. Be bold. Keep looking’ to which I would add: read this beautifully written and deeply moving book. It will be a voyage of marvels.


The Summer Isles: A Voyage of the Imagination is out now and available here.